|A basic form of cashing-in on NAPLAN. The media are much more sophisticated.|
The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) has been in the news of late.
The program was introduced in 2008, three years after I had retired as a school principal, so my personal experience relates to encounters with it from the point of view as a consultant - an adviser with no direct responsibilities for student results.
In addition, I was focused on students with disabilities, so my perspective was a mite unconventional.
Whatever, I have certainly developed some opinions based on my experience.
My first encounter influenced by NAPLAN was when I was supporting a student with a physical impairment enrolled in a small (15 student) rural school. The principal asked me how she would go about securing permission for this student to be exempted from the test.
When I enquired as to her reasons for this, it became clear that she was worried that his under-performance on the test would lower the average of her whole school performance. This was a real issue for small school principals. When you have an enrolment of 15, one bad performance makes a great deal of difference to the whole school result.
When your enrolment is say, 500, not so much.
NAPLAN was always an issue for small schools.
Given my post-2005 experience in the Queensland system, I also noticed other issues associated with the emphasis on literacy and numeracy demanded by NAPLAN. The curriculum is crowded, and teachers generally prioritise areas that are assessed.
So do school administrators. If school staffing resources are prioritised (as they always are) literacy and numeracy take precedence. This is reflected in the way specialist teachers who operate outside the literacy/numeracy area treated. Music and Art teachers find themselves used as relief teachers when push comes to shove as a result of staffing prioritised. Their curriculum areas are inevitably dismissed because they are not part of the program. This is despite the fact that for many students, art and music provide the real colour and movement in the curriculum and the best chance for enduring engagement.
I’m aware of a number of specialist teachers who felt so abused by the practice of disregarding their subject areas that they left the profession in disgust.
Then, of course, there’s the media’s use of the NAPLAN data. They exploit it mercilessly. It is, after all, God’s gift to declining circulations. Everybody wants to read about the relative performances of their child and their school.
There have been calls for the abolition of the scheme. To assess whether this has any merit, it’s important to consider the real reason for its introduction. My belief is that they were political, rather than educational.
The government in power at the time wanted to show that it was DOING SOMETHING ABOUT EDUCATION. When you think about it, NAPLAN was supposed to answer a question that nobody who knew anything about teaching and learning actually asked. Schools and teachers know how they are performing. They are told so every day. Schooling and teaching are the most public and visible of professions.
The league tables that have developed on the back of media coverage of the results have had an enormously destructive influence on schools, teachers and students. It is impossible to identify one positive outcome of these tables except for the above-mentioned boost for the media.
But to terminate the program on the basis of these negatives? I wouldn’t do that. The problem is not the collection of data, but the way in which it has been misused. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The solution is relatively simple – make the data available only to those directly involved – the students and parents – the teachers and the apparatchiks in the state systems. The media could be kept at bay by press releases that provided system-wide data, but left school data out of it, to prevent school by school comparisons. Real penalties could be applied to any individual or organisation that leaked information.
This should remove the pressure cooker environment that has developed around the program.
There would be wailing and gnashing of teeth from the media of course – I can see the headlines about “denial of accountability” and “cover-up”, but if all sides of politics supported an embargo on league tables, the political sting would be removed.
Let’s have a reassessment of NAPLAN – not in terms of what data is collected, but what is done with it. Leave the data in the hands of those best positioned to use it rather than misuse it. Use it to inform resource allocation, teaching strategies, and staff support, not to score political points and set one system against another.
Let’s make sure NAPLAN doesn’t become Napalm. I saw what that stuff did in Vietnam.